Quentin awoke to the sound of voices calling and feet pounding upon the deck. From the slanting beams of sunlight pouring into the sleeping quarters, he could see that the day was speeding away. He threw off the coverlet and jumped nimbly to his feet, experiencing that momentary weaving sensation he always had when waking at sea.
Making his way out onto the main deck, Quentin noticed that the calls and sounds of activity were becoming more frantic. Something was wrong.
His curiosity alerted, he dashed out onto the deck, nearly colliding with Trenn, who stood just outside the cabin door.
“Look at that, young master,” said Trenn, squinting his eyes and jutting his jaw forward. “Aye, an evil sign if ever I saw one.”
At first Quentin did not see what he was looking at. Then, as the sight overwhelmed him, he did not see how he had missed it.
Dead ahead and closing in on three sides loomed a tremendous fog bank scudding swiftly toward them over the water. The sea was calm, the breeze light. The thick, curling fog seemed driven from behind.
The fog was a dirty gray mass: heavy, dark, its churning walls rose high overhead. And even as Quentin watched, the first leading wisps trailed across the sun.
Quentin ran to the rail and leaned over. Behind them Selric’s two sister ships had drawn close, and the crew was trying unsuccessfully to throw lines from one ship to another so that none would be lost in the fog. That was the explanation for the sounds of urgency he had heard. For though the other ships still sailed in clear weather, a wondrous blue sky arching overhead and the sun spilling down a generous light, Selric’s vessel in the lead was now almost engulfed in the fog.
Quentin watched as the towering billows closed overhead, blotting out the last patch of spotless blue above. The sun became a dull hot spot overhead, then dimmed and was extinguished altogether. This was an evil sign, thought Quentin as the rolling clouds swallowed the ship and removed the other ships from sight.
He turned and was astonished to find that he could not see even as far as across the deck. So thick was the fog that he could not say for certain exactly where he was at that moment. If he had not had a fairly good idea of the lay of the ship, he could have been completely lost.
“Trenn,” he called and was surprised to hear an answer close at hand.
“Here, sir!” The warder had stepped close to the rail when the fog closed in. “I like this little enough. It is a trick of that wicked wizard Nimrood. Mark my words; he is behind this right enough. Even I can feel that.”
Trenn’s voice, though close by, sounded removed and muffled. His face floated in and out of view in the veiling mist: a pale apparition uttering dire pronouncements. Quentin shivered and said, “It is just a fog, Trenn. I am sure we will sail through it soon.”
“I am inclined to agree with Trenn,” said a voice behind them. Quentin nearly leaped overboard. The voice had come out of nowhere, with no warning of approaching steps. But the voice was familiar, and Quentin could make out the dim outline of Durwin’s round shape standing before him.
“This is not the season for mists upon the sea,” said the hermit. A long pause ensued. “I believe there is magic behind this. Evil magic. There are signs—one can tell. This is no ordinary fog. It is sorcery.”
Durwin did not say more; he did not need to. There was only one who would cause such an enchantment to overtake them. Trenn had spoken his name aloud, though Quentin dared not.
The day wore on, and the fog became more foul every hour.
It grew steadily darker and cooler, so by midafternoon it appeared as twilight, and the cloying air held a damp chill that seeped into the clothing of any who ventured out into it. Strange blasts of icy wind blew suddenly out of nowhere, striking the surprised victim on the face, first from one direction, then from another. Selric’s men, well trained and seasoned, said nothing, their mouths clamped shut in grim determination. But their eyes revealed a mounting fear.
Quentin sat upon his mattress, munching an apple. He did not feel like eating; the apple was merely an exercise against the creeping uneasiness they all felt. Only Toli, who dozed upon his pallet, seemed unconcerned. But the Jher had not spoken all day.
Then the voices began.
Quentin became aware of them as one becomes aware that the wind has risen. All at once it is there, though it must have been present and building in force for a long time unnoticed. That was how the voices started. First a whisper, barely audible. Then a little louder, growing until the long, rattling wails could be heard echoing across the sea.
Quentin and Toli tiptoed out on a deck and crept forward to the mainmast, where they found a slight knot of sailors huddled together, and among them Theido, Ronsard, King Selric, and Durwin.
All around them, shrieks and moans filled the fetid air. Rasping calls and booming shouts echoed overhead. Whispers and cries and whimpering groans surrounded them. The eerie cacophony of voices assailed them on every side—a chorus of all the unhappy spirits that roamed the nether places of the world.
Amid the bawling and the bellows, the raking screams and screeches, the bone-chilling howls and absurd whooping, arose a sound that made Quentin’s blood run to water.
A laugh. A chuckle sounding small and far away began to grow. It swelled uncontrollably and insanely, booming louder and louder, a sharp, hacking cackle that shook the rigging and rattled the gear on board the ship. Quentin could feel that madman’s laugh through the soles of his feet as he stood on deck with his hands clamped over his ears.
He couldn’t shut it out; the sound had gotten inside his head. He began to think that if the laughter did not stop soon he would end it by leaping overboard and letting the waves cover him in silence.
“Courage, men!” The shout was strong and true. “Courage!” King Selric, who had been in consultation with Durwin when Quentin had joined them, had climbed up in the rigging of the mast and was rallying his men to the sound of his voice as he would in battle.
“These cries are but the augury of a magician. They are not spirits of the dead; they are illusion, nothing more. Courage!”
King Selric’s strong words seemed to help. Quentin noticed the fear subside in the eyes of those around him. Selric climbed down and resumed his place. Quentin and Toli, who had both stood as stiff as stone, now inched forward to join the group.
“How long can this torment persist?” The questioner was Ronsard, though Quentin could barely see him through the filthy fog.
“Endlessly,” replied Durwin, closer to hand. “Until its purpose is accomplished. Though what that is, I cannot say.”
“To slow us down? Put us off course?” asked Theido.
“Perhaps, though I am more of a mind that there is another reason behind it.”
Quentin felt a shift in the fog and a cold wind stirring the waves.
“Partro!” cried Toli. Quentin interpreted.
“Enchanted voices all around, and he says, ‘Listen,’” mocked Trenn.
“No! He is right,” shouted Durwin. “Listen! What do you hear— beyond the voices?”
Quentin listened and heard a thrashing sound, the wash of water upon rocks. The rocks!
“We are heading for the rocks!” cried Theido.
“We’ll crash!” shouted Selric, dashing forward. “Helmsman! Steer away hard to larboard!”
“No, stay!” shouted Durwin. “Selric, tell your helmsman to keep his course. Do not turn aside.”
The king spun to the hermit, his protest ready. “We will be smashed upon the rocks! There is no time to—”
“It is a trick! Hold your course.”
For an instant King Selric hesitated and then announced, “Helmsman, hold your course.”
The company stood huddled, awaiting the sound of their wooden beams splintering upon the treacherous rocks of one of the Seven Mystic Isles they seemed to be drifting so near. They waited for the grinding halt and the rapidly tilting deck as they struck and were pitched into the sea.
But though the sound of waves upon unseen rocks encompassed them round about, the anticipated wreck did not occur. The ship held steady, feeling its way through the oppressive vapor with the crash of waves breaking all around.
Several long hours dragged away. The group on deck now sat in a tense circle of worried faces. Periodically, someone would leave and another take his place; but throughout the evening the vigil continued.
As night took hold—adjudging by the darkness creeping through the mists, a general deepening of the darkness already present—King Selric ordered torches to be placed along the rail lest anyone fall overboard. Squatting upon the deck in the quivering light of the sulky torches, the miserable company waited.
Quentin, dozing fitfully as he slumped upon the damp planks of the deck, was suddenly aware of a great confusion. Nearby, the slap of running feet on the deck, shouts of alarm. And, more distant, the terrible sound of shipwreck.
He jumped to his feet, shaking his head to clear it, and followed the others to the stern.
“One of our ships has struck a rock!” cried a sailor. “It is sinking!”
Peering into the fog, as peering into mud, revealed nothing. But the anguished cries of men and the horrible tearing of the ship as it hung on the rock and battered itself to pieces filled the dank air. Quentin could hear the mast crashing to the deck and the screams of the men it crushed beneath its weight—cut short as it fell. He heard men in the water, drowning. A sickening, helpless feeling spread through Quentin’s frame as he stood gripping the taffrail with whitened knuckles. Someone do something—save them!
King Selric called for the ship to turn about, to lower boats to save the crew of the distressed ship and pick up survivors. But Durwin, standing close beside him, a warning hand on his arm, said, “No, withdraw your orders. There is nothing out there. Hold firm to your course.”
The king looked around in the swirling fog, appealing to the others for opinions. Theido said nothing, and Ronsard turned away. Selric had his answer; he pounded his fists into the rail and canceled his order for rescue.
“If you like, have your trumpeter call to the other ships—if they are close, they will hear that we proceed unaverted.”
Selric did as Durwin suggested; and the trumpeter, aloft in the rigging, blew a long, strong call on his horn. He repeated it as if to say, “Hold steady. All is well. Hold steady.”
The ship continued on as before, and the cries of the men from the wreck were gradually lost in the muffling mist.